Sunday, August 30, 2015

A summer night in a backwater berth in Ohio where dining in America was transformed

The view from the Lagoons at Vermilion, Ohio is a bit intimidating. Sheltered from Lake Eyrie, this bedroom community of Cleveland is one of those places in America that if people who don’t live here they probably don’t think about. There’s a million of these places in the States. What makes it so intriguing is that people live their lives here, cut their lawns, take their boats out to the lake, on the 4th of July, on Labor Day weekend, and live as though they are the center of the universe. Which indeed, they are. As we are all, living within our very own microcosms. Peaceful, placid, bring your boat up to the dock, park it and come in for a multi-course wine dinner. Why not?

Why not indeed? And so it was this past week, I flew to Cleveland, where it was 20 degrees cooler than Dallas. That was a bonus right off. And all in the course of a week’s worth of work, making the world safe for Italian wine.

La Fiorita's Natalie Oliveros and Matt Mars open wines
The wine dinner, planned in January, was to be at Chez Francois, hailed by Evelyn Theiss of the Cleveland Plain Dealer as “the high-end destination for haute cuisine in Northeast Ohio", Chef John D’Amico and co-owner Matt Mars have been bringing their passion for 29 years at Chez Francois, their French restaurant.

What are two Italian-Americans doing running a French dining spot in the suburbs of Cleveland? How did any of us get here? The reality is, 30 years ago, French cooking was at the top, and all the rest, in America, placed a distant second. That’s just the way it was. Or that’s the way many positioned themselves. But they slipped their influences in, whether it was Italian or Spanish, or Greek. And as things progressed, as we all can see now, French food made room for the others, if not by abdication then by evolution.

Chef John D'Amico
Now Chez Francois is a bastion of "fresh right from the farm," whether the food has a French sounding name or an Italian. And does it really matter? What matters is the food be wholesome and tasty and everything is in balance. Chef John D’Amico works and works and it appears he loves, loves, loves what he does. He took me into his tiny kitchen, his staff all scrubbed and polite. Tight ship. No leaks. Grinders. And we had 110 folks outside who were coming in, all at the same time, and all hungry. Hats off to chef and his staff, I ate his food, everything was spot-on, as perfect as it can get, and, I daresay, it was that way for the other 109 folks as well, and all the diners who have come here for the past 30 years.

Matt Mars – what can you say? A quintessential “front of the house” man. They lost the combination for guys like Matt years ago. He represents a tradition in dining that defies trend and fashion. Matt is “present” on the floor, at all times. What a pleasure to spend a night on his floor, with his staff and his clients in this dreamy little backwater hamlet that helped to transform dining in America. Ohio, you say? And a suburb of Cleveland, no less? Yes, and yes, and yes again.

The wines ranged from an aperitif wine from Friuli (Joe Bastianich’s bisexual rosé) to a trio of whites, A Pecorino from the Marche, a Pinot Bianco from Alto-Adige and a Vermentino from Sardegna. Followed by a trio of Tuscan reds from Tolaini estate in Castelnuovo Berardenga and a Vino Nobile. After which a duo of Tuscan reds, a Toscana Rosso and a Brunello 2007 from La Fiorita. Owner Natalie Oliveros was in for the dinner and she brought with her some 2004 and 2001 Brunello for this well-healed crowd of wine lovers and collectors.

And they bought. And bought. And bought some more. With all the craziness on Wall Street this past week, our little backwater hamlet was socking away wine for the winter. Italian wine has caught the big wave – so good to see after so many years of pounding the streets.

Chef D’Amico and front man Mars aren’t some lightweight backwater fly by night outfit – They’re big league, all the way. And they run with the heavies. A dinner 20 years ago showcased wines from the 1945 vintage. Wolfgang Puck flew in to cook, Master Sommelier Larry Stone arrived to preside over the wines (including a very questionable Jeroboam of 1945 Romanée Conti). I would have loved to been there that night.

All of our wines this week were verifiably authentic. Maybe someday empty bottles of La Fiorita will be re-purposed on faraway shores, but not here, not tonight.

If you ever find yourself in Cleveland, make a note to get a reservation and take the 45 minute drive to Vermilion (bring a jacket if you want to get in). It is a treasure spot for the rise of food and wine in America and D’Amico and Mars, by virtue of their commitment and showing up, day after day, in a business that is damn hard on the feet and the knees (and marriages) have been rock steady – call if French, call it Continental, call it whatever you like – when you eat the food you’ll know where the inspiration came from. Two Italian-Americans pursuing a dream, some call it the American dream. Call it what you want – I call it transformational.

Bravo Jon and Matt - Bravissimo!

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